Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Project Brain Pong: Spectating for fun and profit.

Paddles grow and shrink because of the spectator’s involvement in the game. The bars at far right are readings of spectator involvement.

Paddles grow and shrink because of the spectator’s involvement in the game. The bars at far right are readings of spectator involvement.

Researching the social aspects of human computer interaction is a primary objective of the work we do in my lab (video games make for an excellent medium in which to conduct HCI research). So when a team from another university came in to get my input on their ongoing work to commercialize a new type of brain computer interface (BCI), I started thinking about ways their device could support social experiences. As a general rule, BCIs are not high precision human interface devices. So while they are definitely very cool, BCIs don’t tend to be particularly good for Excel spreadsheets or playing Halo.

What if… because you’re cheering them on, your player can run faster or jump higher?

Ever cheered for a team and become so involved in the game that you were willing your team to win? Know anybody with a crazy superstitious routine to guarantee victory? (It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.) Spectators are intimately connected to the experience of a game — sporting event or digital. While spectators don’t play the game they’re watching, they certainly influence it. And myself, I actually prefer to spectate video games over playing them. So my thought was, how about if a spectator’s involvement in a game could actually affect gameplay? I even sketched up a nerdy diagram relating players and spectators and their social interactions and direct/indirect game effects. It’s not science without diagrams, right?

NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile headset

NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile headset

Over the last few months we prototyped this idea and showed it at a conference. To do this we created a variation of the classic game Pong incorporating spectators’ focus and meditation levels as measured through NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile headsets. The team included myself, game designer and MFA student Toni Pizza, computer engineering student Cindy Fan, and, of course, my advisor. We never came up with a name better than simply Brain Pong.

Modeling our proof-of-concept game after Pong greatly simplified the programming and eliminated the need to design a new game from scratch. Further, because nearly everyone is already familiar with the basics of Pong, the players, spectators, and researchers could all focus on the new dynamic we had put in place.

Check out that spectator sending out his vibes

We created several versions of our Pong variant where spectator involvement variously affected paddle size, ball size, and introduced a second ball. We’ve observed social effects ranging from players trying to soothe spectators to spectators actively antagonizing players.

My advisor recently delivered a keynote address at the Project Horseshoe conference on the topic of designing for social effects in games. She debuted our early work during her keynote and was able to let the attendees play our Brain Pong demonstration game for themselves (they really liked it). From here, our next steps are to create a much larger game that better exploits spectator effects and to conduct — and hopefully publish — research on the resulting social effects of the gameplay.

Smartypants Addendum:
A Framework for Interrelation of Game Effects & Social Effects

Early work in systematizing social effects and game effects among players and spectators in video games

Early work in systematizing social effects and game effects among players and spectators in video games


The vertical axis captures the role within a game setting an individual can take on, ranging from a full player to a full spectator to somewhere in between. By game setting I am referring to the game environment itself plus the social environment around it.

The horizontal axis captures what kind of effect an individual has on the game itself. Direct input refers to an isomorphic mapping between an individual's input and a change in the game. Indirect input refers to causing a change in the game but via some influencer conduit.

The numbered quadrants are the conceptual spaces that describe various game designs in the interrelation of game effects and social effects.

In Quadrant 1 a player's intent directly maps to game input and resulting effects. Any social effects are incidental rather than intentional on the part of the designers.

In Quadrant 2 a player influences the game by their interaction with other players whether via a multi-player game mechanic or a communication side channel (e.g. audio headsets or text-based chat). These effects are designed social features.

In Quadrant 3 the game could be single player or multi-player but is designed to engage the attention and influence of spectators in the larger social space. Party / dancing games are an example here.

In Quadrant 4 the game is directly influenced by the players and spectators. Here we find situated our idea of using BCIs worn by spectators to alter the game environment or alter the abilities of the player. Of course, even various patterns in pressing a single button by a spectator could also achieve a direct effect through spectating.

Note that the progression from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 4 loosely maps to history. The earliest games were in Quadrant 1 while Quadrant 3 is far more recent (and could still certainly be developed much further). Quadrant 4 represents the future and bleeding edge of only what's been envisioned at this point.